The worst hard time road trip

Bob Panzer
Bob Panzer

About two years ago I was given a copy of the book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan.

Mr. Egan explores the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle region and tells the story of how the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression impacted the folks that called the region home. He covers the topic of how man impacted the environment and how the environment and the economy turned on the folks that had settled the region.

His book describes how people struggled to survive the dust, wind, lack of food, the Great Depression, and what nature threw at them. Banks, businesses, and churches closed. Crops dried up and cattle suffocated with dirt. There were stories of grasshoppers eating the paint off of the farm buildings and large swarms of rabbits that overran the land.

The worst day for many was the Black Sunday dust storm of April 14, 1935. The windstorm rolled out of the north and carried with it tons of soil and destruction to all in its path. Mr. Egan winds down his book with some thoughts on the high plains and how man continues to impact the region.

I had the opportunity this past winter to take a few weeks off to travel to the high plains. I wanted to check out Mr. Egan’s story and discover more about the people and environment that make up the high plains.

We traveled in this area just as the wild fires were breaking out on many ranches. These fires destroyed cattle, ranches, hay supplies, and grasslands. We were able to view some of the destruction of these large fires and experience a small rural community working to control one of the fires.

The high plains has very beautiful scenery. We hiked in Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons State Parks in Texas. We also hiked the Capulin Volcano National Monument near Capulin, NM. There were many other great views of land, rivers, reservoirs, ranches, and great communities. The high plains is not lacking for interesting scenery.

Ranching and farming certainly have their challenges in the high plains. From managing fires, to managing cattle on grass, to managing crops, there is always the challenge of water. Grass needs to be carried over for winter and spring feeding, and yet too much dry grass in the spring is a fire disaster waiting to ignite.

Over 100 years of ranching and farming on the high plains has taught people to manage for success. The Panhandle Plains History Museum on the West Texas A & M University campus in Canyon, TX, is an excellent source on the history of the Panhandle and how they have learned to manage the resources of the high plains.

How does the high plains of today differ from the high plains that Mr. Egan describes in his book? I wanted to talk with locals about what they thought of the future of the high plains. Is it an area that should be written off and turned into a buffalo park? Is there really an economic future for the high plains that can benefit the folks that want to call the high plains their home?

I met with two bankers, toured a large feedlot, and visited with a rancher on the topics related to economics on the high plains. The major takeaways from the discussions is that the environment needs to be respected and managed. Irrigation and large feedlots have brought prosperity to the high plains. Good paying and steady jobs in beef, hog, and milk processing have really boosted the standard of living for many. Irrigation has brought manufacturing and a dependable supply of water when crops need water during the growing season.

Crop production has also diversified with greater amounts of crops such as alfalfa, cotton, corn, milo, and soybeans to just name a few. Water use is monitored and managed. Recreation is also a major part of many communities. Water sports such as fishing and boating are important in many areas. Energy has played a role in the high plains for many years, but today it is more than oil and gas. There is a major push for wind and solar farms and ethanol plants.

The high plains can provide us all with some lessons. Diversity in the environment, the economy, population, and entertainment is a strength we can all appreciate.

Bob Panzer lives and farms in Chippewa County, WI. He serves as a Land Manager for Pifer's Auction and Realty, Eau Claire, WI. He may be contacted at